Is the long trip through Purgatory worth the time? Not sure.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Stacy Koloski. Scenic and Prop design by Meg Anderson. Lighting design by Corey Anderson. Costume design by Lauren Tudor. Sound design by Jacob Cote. Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, Staged at the Hutchins School Theater, Mosher Street, Portland, MA, through April 9.
By David Greenham
South Portland’s Mad Horse Theatre Company is never afraid to dig into an uncomfortable idea and shovel around a bit, so it’s no surprise that a play set in Hope, which is located in a section of Purgatory, is right in its wheelhouse. The irony is that Stephen Adly Guirgis’ often irreverent The Last Days of Judas Iscariot proves to be about as much as the Mad Horse can handle.
Judas (Nick Schroeder), though catatonic, has been offered a retrial via a writ signed by God. But, because this is Purgatory, the prosecuting and defending attorneys, the judge, the jury, and the witnesses are all hanging out in the same place and so, by association, are we. Each character turns out to have a past that leaves them vulnerable, his or her credibility shot. Redemption is out of reach for all. So who is telling the truth? Only one witness can be judged, at face value, to be honest, and that’s Satan (Brent Askari). The Devil is the star of this un-reality show.
Director Stacey Koloski’s got her hands full with a cast of 16 actors playing 26 roles. Playwright Guirgis toys around with his supernatural concept in a number of ways. We’re not surprised to hear from Judas’ mother Henrietta (Mad Horse Artistic Director Christine Louise Marshall), St. Thomas (Mandela Gardner), Simon the Zealot and St. Peter (Khalil LeSaldo), St. Matthew and Caiaphas (Burke Brimmer), Pontius Pilate (Caleb Aaron Coulthard), Mary Magdalene (Marie Stewart Harmon), and even Jesus of Nazareth (Jason LeSaldo). But there are some surprise witnesses as well, including a hilarious Mother Theresa (Tootie Van Reenen) and an indignant Sigmund Freud (Tony Reilly). Each witness is dispatched, more or less, by defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Janice Gardner in a role similar to her character in Mad Horse’s last offering, The Nether). And if that wasn’t ferocious enough, the witnesses are shredded by the outrageous prosecuting attorney Yusef El-Fayoumy (Mark Rubin). Or fear being in his sight.
Some of the most revealing scenes in this long theatrical journey are the flashbacks, when Judas’ life is dramatized. An episode when he shares his favorite new toy with Matthias of Galilee (Mandela Gardner) provides the sweetest and most gentle moment of the play. It would have been nice to have had more.
But this is an unruly courtroom play, so its about the dueling defense and prosecuting attorneys doing battle, the judge trying to hold onto the reins. Neither the Mad Horse production, nor the play, manages to hang on. When defense attorney El-Fayoumy demands an answer from reluctant witness Caiaphas — “this is Purgatory, Caiaphas, I’ve got all day” — we’re afraid that we might be here for eternity. As the dueling attorneys, Ruban and Gardner do their best to keep the action moving, but a very long portion of the second act is just talk, and not of the heavenly variety. Their challenging jobs are not aided by Brimmer’s Judge Littlefield, who from time to time jumps out of the role to double as both St. Matthew and Caiaphas. In the theater, too much multi-tasking can turn into its own kind of Purgatory.
Meg Anderson’s set has an arbitrary feel: this could be a basement or the end of an alleyway. Cast members are littered, askew, across half of the stage; the other half is reserved for the witness stand. The attorneys were left to wander in circles around the witnesses. Given the three-quarter arrangement of the seating, there was rarely a good view of all the characters. But it didn’t matter all that much because most of the performers didn’t seem to be paying attention. Schroeder’s Judas is mostly inert and emotionless; he’s disconnected rather than electrifying. Which is unfortunate, because when the actor springs into action his Judas attains the depth and breadth missing in Guirgis’ often thin and one-dimensional characters.
This is not to say there aren’t some outstanding moments of the production. Marshall’s opening monologue as Judas’ sorrowful mother suggests that something powerful is to come. By most accounts, the real Mother Teresa wasn’t a little bundle of boundless joy, but in Van Reenen’s characterization she is. Although he’s only on for one scene, Reilly’s stint as Freud leaves you wanting more. In two small roles, Mandela Gardner delivers nuanced and gentle performances that snag your attention. It will come as no surprise, however, that Askari’s Satan steals the show. The character’s got home court advantage, of course. In his first scene, the Devil promises the judge that he will behave, “I am a Buddha floating on a lily pad,” he intones. He’s not, thank God. By the end of the play he does what we have been dreaming of and rips all of its participants apart. Alas, it turns out to be a false wind-up.
There is a touch of redemption when Jody McColman’s Butch Honeywell shares the story of his downfall with the defeated Judas. McColman’s lovely monologue balances with the show’s opening — it is a wrenching story of loss. Describing how he callously discarded the perfect wife, he confesses to Judas, “you cashed in silver, but I threw away gold.”
Is this long trip through Purgatory worth the time? Not sure. The large cast is uneven and shouts too often, but there is some valuable material here. Amid all the rhetoric, Guirgis gets us to think about where we find ourselves now: a corner of Purgatory called Hope could be a good description of our political landscape. It is up for grabs whether Satan will, or will not, steal the show.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.